Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What to Teach?

By Tamara Jones

ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

What will Keep Pino Safe?

Okay, I admit I am way behind the curve on this. People have been talking about English as a lingua franca for ages. However, it was not until I started my current job as an English teacher at the SHAPE Language Center on a NATO base in Belgium that the importance of non-native speakers being able to communicate easily in English with each other really hit home. English is the “official” language within NATO, so many of my students use English to communicate with their co-workers from other countries. An interesting example is one of my delightful Italian students, Pino, who wants to perfect his already impressive command of English in order to communicate more precisely with translators when he serves in Afghanistan and Iraq. Whatever my personal opinion about the war might be, I do know that when Pino is “in theater,” as they say, I want him to be as safe as possible.

A Legitimacy of Variation

Somewhat belatedly, I came across an article written by Barbara Seidlhofer in which she argues, if my understanding is correct, that since more non-native speakers than native speakers use English, native speakers don’t “own” English anymore. As a result, there is a “legitimacy of variation” (Steidlhofer, 2004, page 214) in grammar and pronunciation forms. In other words, when Pino is communicating with his German counterpart and an Afghan translator, certain non-standard forms of English are usually not cause for confusion. This begs the question, how important is it really that the speakers always include the final -s on third person singular verbs?

Incidental Errors?

Seidlhofer (2006, page 226) lists several common grammatical “errors” that many English teachers would correct if we heard, but which actually don’t cause any misunderstandings in non-native speaker/non-native speaker conversations.

  • the third person present tense –s (It cost.)
  • the relative pronouns who and which (The man which I know …)
  • definite and indefinite articles (Please pass salt. I went to the Chicago.)
  • tag questions (It will be ready, no?)
  • redundant prepositions (We have to study about … )
  • overusing general verbs, such as do, make, have, put, take
  • infinitives (replacing infinitives with that, as in I want that …)
  • explicitness (black color)

This list reads like an inventory of all the lingering mistakes my students of all levels consistently make. However, if these mistakes don’t cause any misunderstanding in the majority of English interactions should teachers be focusing on teaching and correcting them? Shouldn’t we instead focus on intelligibility rather than accuracy? After all, I have never heard of a conversation screeching to a halt, except in an English class, because the final -s was left off a verb.

Safe and Accurate

For me, the answer is simple. Even though I want my students like Pino to be able to express their thoughts as intelligibly as possible, I cannot let go of the notion of “correct English”. Moreover, I have never had a students ask me not to correct these minor errors because they were more concerned with fluency than accuracy. Usually, in fact, it is quite the opposite. Call me old-fashioned, but I can’t help feeling that, although intelligibility is important, grammatical accuracy is as well. Furthermore, the studies I have read on English as a lingua franca (although I am by no means an expert) have neglected to comment on the perceptions created by inaccurate use of English. The German NATO soldier might not have any trouble understanding Pino, but if his English is better than Pino’s, will he subconsciously form a negative opinion of my student? I would be interested in knowing what others think about this issue. Are you hyper-vigilant in your correction or do you tend not to sweat the little stuff? As English evolves, and non-native speakers increasingly influence the way it changes, do you think the wretched final –s will eventually disappear?

Seidlhofer, B. (2004) Research perspectives on teaching English as a lingua franca, Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 24, 209-239


Comment from AlexJM
February 25, 2009 at 11:32 pm

Maybe it’s because I grew up in a small town along the border in California, or the fact that I grew up listening to my father, a non-native English speaker, speak English, that I tend to agree with Seidlhofer’s “legitimacy of variation.” Everyone where I grew up understood each other even if someone’s pronunciation or grammar was off. I think that as long as people are able to understand each otherj and communicate their thoughts and feelings, form isn’t so important. I do, however, share your concerns about the negative perceptions that result from the inaccurate use of English. Many people where I grew up, myself included, tended to look down upon those with less accuracy. It was okay in the social setting, but not as acceptable at school and in professional settings. I guess that ideally I wouldn’t want to sweat the small stuff in terms of accuracy, but out of concern for a person’s educational/professional development, I would want to. (I am a beginning TESOL student, and have no teaching experience.)

Comment from Myung Jee Kim
March 2, 2009 at 1:00 am

As a non-native speaker myself, I really envy native speakers those who are strong on both accuracy and fluency. However, sometimes I notice some easy grammatical mistakes made by native speakers and they don’t even seem to mind at all! I guess it’s because most of our communication is focused on fluency rather than accuracy and I think it’s so natural.

Comment from Tamara
March 3, 2009 at 9:18 am

I also think whether or not to “sweat the small stuff” depends on what level the student is at, also. I realized today when I was correcting a student’s lack of -s that beginning students don’t need to or want to focus on fine tuning the way more advanced students do.

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